COP26 flag: UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021 in Partnership with Italy

A maxed or missed opportunity

The – the final text of the United Nations COP26 negotiations – has been greeted with a mixture of frustration, relief and hope that the ambition to restrict increases in global mean temperatures to within 1.5⁰C of pre-industrial levels remains alive.

One of its most vocal critics, , branded COP26 a failure before the first week of talks had finished, accusing politicians of engaging in word-spinning rather than taking real action to curb emissions. 

similarly argues that the Glasgow Pact, for all its diplomatic language, reads like a suicide pact and that survival depends on raising the scale of civil disobedience to the point where it triggers a cascading regime shift in both technology and mainstream politics.

The main target of anger was the last-minute decision to downgrade text committing signatory countries to phasing out coal – the most carbon intensive fossil fuel – to a vague pledge to phase down coal. COP26 president, , was visibly upset by China and India’s insistence on the change and warned that they would have to explain their decision to the world’s climate-vulnerable countries.

, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, also voiced his displeasure at the removal of the draft text’s pledge on coal but struck a determined tone, telling journalists:

“Did I appreciate [the change]? No. But if we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have a deal. I’ll take ‘phase it down’ and take the fight into next year.”

A changing stance on fossil fuels

Kerry’s comments draw attention to the important reality that, whatever its shortcomings, COP26 broke new ground in the international climate negotiations.

Phasing out coal remained a step too far for some governments, but it is the first time a United Nations climate agreement has included a formal commitment to curtail humanity’s entanglement with fossil fuels.

Having set this course, it would be hugely problematic for governments to try to remove it from future agendas and there are good reasons to believe that policy momentum will grow in this area.

Coal mine in Qinghai, China

The similarly represents an important step towards protecting biodiversity and delivering sustainable development, while the pledge by from 2020 levels by 2030 suggests a growing recognition that nations need to deepen and broaden climate mitigation efforts.

Another potential game changer was the . The 2015 only committed countries to review their emissions targets every five years.

The decision to bring this forward by three years provides the firmest indication to

date that politicians accept that their current pledges are untenable in the context of the 1.5°C goal and are prepared to do something about it.

Does this mean that national leaders have finally got their priorities right on climate change? The signals remain mixed and there is much to suggest that many are still trying to solve the climate crisis in the context of other national priorities.

Boris Johnson is promising a in the UK, an approach that may catalyse emissions reductions in some sectors (UK leadership in hydrogen power and electric vehicles) but prove stickier in areas (such as reducing meat consumption) where economic and employment gains are harder to secure.

COP26 Alok Sharma addresses journalists
COP26 Native Americans protest climate change
COP26 banner: together for our planet

Turning commitments into action

Joe Biden has also used green growth and co-benefits to gather support for climate action in the U.S., but his administration’s approach remains dogged by the difficulties of navigating climate policy through the U.S.’s ideologically polarised political system. India and China’s intervention on coal was justified on the grounds that it reflected the “national circumstances of emerging economies” and climate justice, recalling that the world’s rich nations grew their economies on the back of burning fossil fuels. And just two days after the declaration on deforestation, Indonesia’s Environment Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, distanced her country from it, arguing that committing to zero deforestation by 2030 was inappropriate, unfair and inconsistent with Indonesia’s development priorities.

The real impact of COP26 will only really become apparent as its agreements are translated into national policy actions.

However, the evidence from the negotiations indicates that climate change is still too often being treated as ancillary to other national ambitions, to acted upon where it is advantageous but not where it clashes with other priorities. If COP27 and other future climate summits are to rise to the climate challenge, national delegations will need to show a sharper appreciation that climate change is the context upon which these other aspirations hinge. 

A recent report by indicated that India’s five most climate-impacted sectors – government and private and private service, manufacturing, retail and tourism, construction, and transport — which together account for more than 80% of India’s GDP could experience between now and 2070. Jager and Saha from the World Resources Institute argue that, without new policies, the U.S. will face climate-related , or even 3.7–10% in a worst-case scenario.

The cost of events that have already happened are only marginally less alarming. The estimated that the Australian tourism sector alone lost AU$4.5 billion in 2020 as a result of the 2019–2020 bushfires, while the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the costs of had already surpassed the 2020 total.

Looking over a longer time horizon, the NOAA estimates that the cost of climate-related events in the U.S. for the last five years ($691.7 billion) was . To these must be added the less easily measurable costs of displacement, loss of life, injustice and the potentially irreparable damage caused by climate change to the planet’s biodiversity and life-support systems.

COP26 forest fire

COP26 may have moved climate policy into new territory but rapid further shifts in priorities are needed so that strong climate action is no longer seen as something to be pursued where it aligns with narrow pre-conceptions of national interests. It is the only way to safeguard the social and economic well-being of nations and their peoples. Global leaders are keen to assure their citizens that they accept the climate science but there still seems to be some way to go before they fully understand its implications.

Top 10 sustainable university

We are ranked 9th in the world out of all the institutions featured in the tables for our efforts in support of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 17: partnerships for the goals.

The University has established its position as an international pioneer in sustainability practices, research, education and engagement.

THE Impact Rankings SDG17 Partnerships for the Goals 2021 Top 10